June 03, 2003

Manufactured Beauty

There's a fascinating if short post over at Ken Layne's site about how high-definition television sets reveal the physical imperfections of actors and actresses which prior technology had successfully masked. Specifically, Mr Layne links to a post from Jeff Jarvis on the subject, in which Mr Jarvis notes how the actress Cameron Diaz appears on a high-definition set. We learn that Ms Diaz has suffered from the occasional outbreak of acne, the scars of which become visible on the ultra-clear picture which the new format provides viewers.

It's a fascinating story in many respects. First, it shows the entertainment industry's amazing ability to package and promote certain of its actors and actresses in ways that highlight and exaggerate their natural beauty, and to a degree which those who have no connection to the industry would not realize. Second, it says a lot about our own society, which unfortunately prizes physical beauty over intellectual and spiritual matters. Thirdly, such technology could help liberate us from this genetic bondage we have imposed upon ourselves. And last, but not least, it lets me tell my story about how I met Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Yes, really, but let me be clear. As readers of The Rant know, as a younger man I spent three years living in Los Angeles. For the first two of these three years, I worked in a capacity that gave me a peripheral connection to the entertainment industry. By this, I mean I would occasionally see or meet famous if not A-list actors in my professional capacity, had the opportunity to have drinks once in a while with capable if not-yet famous actors, and learn a small bit about an industry which seems glamorous and amazing to many folks unfamiliar with it. Also I began to suspect that pop musicians were manufactured in secret at some hidden warehouse-factory complex in Van Nuys, but that is neither here nor there.

Anyway, I met them. Or to be more precise, I once shared an elevator with them in the building in which I used to work.

You should know that this building, a badly-designed and modest mid-rise structure on W. Pico Blvd., was where I worked for the first two years of my employ in the City of Angels. On the top floor of this structure, there was a management firm which handled the affairs of screen actors and actresses. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before such an incident took place. To fully understand how this came about, you should also know that this building had but four elevators, all notoriously inefficient and slow (I was stuck in one once, with all my coworkers, in another weird story), and this building further had a confusing layout. The end result is that these elevators would become packed, and visitors would have no idea which floor they needed to exit upon to get to the attached parking garage, so on and so forth.

Now sometime during the day I had reason to take the elevator down -- I think I was going to the pharmacy next door -- and I got on to find myself with one anonymous suit, Mr Broderick and Ms Parker. It was an uneventful experience, to say the least. Mr Broderick and Ms Parker -- who are both awfully short people, at least compared to my six-foot-four frame --were not exactly in movie-star form. They seemed like regular, normal folks, except Mr Broderick seemed dressed a bit, um, casual. But you can get away with that when you're a creative type, though.

We'll leave it at that -- I can give you more details in private, if you'd like -- but the point was they acted like regular, normal folks. And no, neither I or the suit said anything out of the ordinary or asked for their autograph or anything like that. Dammit, we were Angelenos -- we didn't do that type of thing, because we were "with it." Besides, what was I supposed to say? "First floor. Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?" No! And it wasn't as if I could say, apropos of nothing, "Boy. Godzilla -- did that suck. What in the hell were you thinking?" The only thing I did say was to the suit, after the two had left the elevator:

"Was that who I thought --- ?" "Yeah."

I will note that I was given much grief when I returned to the office from the women therein, who demanded to know why I had not brought Mr Broderick up for a round of introductions.

But it is incredible how Hollywood is able to package up its actors and actresses. I have always found it about as amazing as the medical miracles which have artificially prolonged my own life in these past 27 years. One of the commenters -- that's not a word, but it's late -- over at Ken's site put it very well when he described being at a party with the actress Natalie Portman, and not being impressed (!!!) with her looks: "We all agreed: Wow...is film makeup a wonderful thing, or what? I could look like Tom Cruise with that kind of magical makeup." Now, this commenter must look better than I do, because no amount of makeup could make me look like Tom Cruise. But really, even in the high school plays I attended as a teenager, I was always amazed to see just how much makeup was caked on to the faces of those performing in them.

Still, speaking as a former Angeleno, I think one's constant exposure to the entertainment industry sours one on it. That's because you see it for what it really is -- a service industry like any other. Aye, it's a different and specialized and meaningful service, to be sure. But when you strip all the glitz and glamour away from it, and you see movie stars not at premieres but at the frozen-yogurt place at Olympic and Westwood, it goes from the new and exciting to the mundane. That's not to say that I don't have respect for actors: I do, because I know I couldn't do what they do and it takes a lot of hard work to succeed in that jackal-infested business. But I don't worship them or even really revere them like so many Americans seem to do.

Which brings us to the next point -- why is it that we value physical beauty over intellectual pursuits as a society?

I can't say I have the answer to that. I've often joked about my Patented Inverted Sense of Celebrity (e.g. "Oh my God! It's Laurence Tribe!") that makes me jumpy and act nervous around intellectual heavyweights as opposed to famous people who also happen to be beautiful and appear on the silver screen. Perhaps it is merely the market at work -- everyone, I think, wants to be seen as beautiful or attractive, and beauty is a more sought-after and rarer commodity than intellectual production. There are plenty of smart people out there, and there's a glut of work for them to do, and a glut in terms of their production.

What I do know is that beauty without intelligence does nothing for me, personally. I mean, really -- nothing. Oh, sure, I can appreciate that beauty on an intellectual level, judge whether a woman is beautiful or a man handsome on first glance. But if said beautiful person is not all that bright, the novelty wears off quite quickly, and it usually means I end up politely excusing myself from the conversation three minutes later. I am too old to waste my time frantically racking my brain for trivial bits of information about the latest fads I likely know little about. Conversely, though, I am young enough so that beauty combined with intelligence will do quite a bit for me, and if I happen to meet an extremely smart woman who also happens to be quite pretty or even beautiful, it will generally leave me a bit weak in the knees. On rare occasions, if the stars are right and all the ingredients combine together, I can be a wreck for a good week -- or until reason reasserts itself.

But I digress. Even though Mr Layne sounds a discouraging note about the effects of high-definition television (to wit: "Nobody needs to see anybody that goddamned close up in such perfect detail."), I actually think this could be a great boon for our society. It could prove to be a great equalizer which we could really use: one that brings the self-appointed yet horribly vapid beautiful people down a good peg, and which subsequently scraps or diminishes the foolish and irrational value system which certain elements in our society have trumpeted for so long. As that diminishes, we can hope that it will mean more opportunity for others engaged in creative professions, as well as for those involved in the intellectual pursuits at which so many in our society labor. Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 3, 2003 02:27 AM